Sporting Kansas City midfielder Paulo Nagamura says he spent the past six weeks taking his mind off of soccer after a mentally-draining season that included a lingering ankle injury, an unexpected comeback and then his second MLS Cup championship.
Break time, however, is over.
Less than seven weeks after hoisting the MLS Cup trophy, Sporting KC departed Friday for Tucson, Ariz., for its annual preseason training and three exhibition matches at Kino Sports Complex.
“I think the vacations and holidays went really fast,” Nagamura said. “It was six weeks of taking our minds off of the game. It did pass really fast, but we’re excited to be back.”
There won’t be time to ease back into anything, though with the roster likely to closely resemble last season's, the adjustment period will be shortened in training camp, Nagamura said.
Sporting KC expects to have its full roster participating in Tucson, with the exception of Matt Besler, Graham Zusi and Benny Feilhaber, who were selected Friday to the United States men’s national team roster for its friendly against Korea Republic on Feb. 1 in Carson, Calif. Seth Sinovic was released from the national team Friday and is expected to join Sporting KC early next week.
Defender Chance Myers, also released from the national side Friday, remains without a contract for the 2014 MLS season and therefore won’t be making the trip to Tucson. Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said the two sides have had ongoing discussions about bringing Myers back, but no deal has been reached.
Sporting KC made a pair of offseason acquisitions. In two separate deals, it traded for goalie Andy Gruenebaum and midfielder Sal Zizzo.
“We feel confident with the group we have,” Vermes said. “As soon as (camp) starts, we’re going to go fast and furious. There’s not going to be much time to reflect on the past year, but I guess that’s sometimes the price you pay for a little success at the end of the year.”
Sporting KC plays its first exhibition match at noon Tuesday against FC Tucson of the Premier Development League. It will spend more than two weeks in Arizona. The team will conclude its preseason with a two-week trip to Kissimmee, Fla., which includes four games in the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic.
The importance of the exhibition matches will be heightened this year given the club’s early-season workload. Sporting KC opens the MLS season in Seattle on March 8. Only four days later, it will play host to Cruz Azul in the knockout stage of the CONCACAF Champions League.
With the pair of CCL games added to the schedule — Sporting KC will make a return trip to Cruz Azul in Mexico City on March 19 — the club is slated to play four matches in the first 12 days of the season.
“It makes us have to accelerate our training camp,” Vermes said. “We’re going to have to get to how we play and who we want to be much sooner than we normally would.”
That’s nothing new for Nagamura, Gruenebaum and Josh Gardner — the only three players on the club’s roster familiar with the experience of defending an MLS Cup title. Nagamura and Gardner won their first championship with the LA Galaxy in 2005, and both returned for the 2006 season. Gruenebaum won the MLS Cup in 2008 with the Columbus Crew, where he played for eight seasons.
“You have to keep working hard and be humble and defend what’s yours,” Nagamura said. “Every team in the league is going to try to take what’s yours. We have to keep strong and keep doing what we did last year because we know what it takes to be successful.”